Pope John Paul II called for a New Evangelization; Denver answered

Moira Cullings

Shortly after Pope John Paul II visited Denver during World Youth Day in 1993, Curtis Martin had the opportunity to meet with the pope and share his vision for an organization called FOCUS.

The idea was that FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) would evangelize students on college campuses, a place where many people lose their faith. When the pope heard the idea, his message for Martin was simple.

“Be soldiers,” he said.

“We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel,” said John Zimmer, Vice President of Apostolic Development at FOCUS.

Over the past 25 years, FOCUS has impacted tens of thousands of young people across the country and the world.

It’s one of several organizations that hit the ground running after the pope’s visit, sparked by his call for a New Evangelization, and whose impact has shaped the Catholic Church in Denver and throughout the world.

Seminaries bring ‘a richness’ to the archdiocese

After WYD 1993, the Archdiocese of Denver went on to shape future priests first-hand by creating two local seminaries.

Redemptoris Mater was established in 1996 and St. John Vianney in 1999. Both seminaries are located on the campus of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

“After the experience of the World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993, Archbishop [J. Francis] Stafford saw the goodness of establishing a diocesan in Denver and studied the possibility of opening a diocesan and missionary Redemptoris Mater seminary here,” said Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa.

We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa is the current rector at Redemptoris Mater, an international seminary that brings in men from around the world.

“Internationality adds richness to the formation experience,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, “as these future priests learn to live, work, study, play sports and interact in a variety of ways with other fellow seminarians coming from other cultures and world viewpoints.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa believes bringing in seminarians from other countries “is a richness for everyone in the archdiocese, as it makes present the Catholicity and universality that constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the Church.”

He finds that having two seminaries in Denver helps the seminarians — especially those from other countries studying for Denver — to stay in close contact with the archbishop and other Church leaders, as well as gain a better understanding of the parishes and ministries in the archdiocese.

Working within those parishes and ministries is a key part of formation at both seminaries, as the seminarians help the young and the elderly and offer services for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This, said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, is how the seminaries play a role in the New Evangelization in Denver.

“The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization,” he said, “the more we receive from it.”

Augustine Institute ‘on the cutting edge’ of JPII’s vision

The Augustine Institute has formed disciples who have gone on to evangelize through a variety of apostolates.

By offering an M.A. in Theology, an M.A. in Leadership, study programs, videos and more, the Augustine Institute has created lay leaders in the New Evangelization.

“We opened in August 2006, inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization . . .” said Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, in a 2016 interview with Denver Catholic.

“We wanted to help people effectively engage, evangelize and win the post-modern culture that believes anyone can have their own private story, but there should be no public story,” said Gray.

Those who participate in the Augustine Institute go on to work in a variety of apostolates, said Gray.

“We are also amazed by the new ways graduates go into the field,” he said.

Organizations created by graduates of the Augustine Institute include Camp Wojtyla and Christ in the City. Others have gone on to work as leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver office and our Catholic schools.

The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization, the more we receive from it.”

And by launching formed.org, an online video streaming service that offers Catholic content to people around the world, those who aren’t seeking a degree but simply want to go deeper in their faith have the opportunity to do so.

“This is on the cutting edge of the New Evangelization,” said Gray.

FOCUS fights on the ‘battleground for souls’

Since Pope John Paul II’s visit, FOCUS has evangelized tens of thousands of college students. The organization expects that by 2022, around 75,000 students who were involved with FOCUS have transitioned into many of the 17,000 plus parishes in the United States.

“I think JPII not only challenged the Church for lay Catholics to evangelize, but in his World Youth Day efforts, he really challenged the young people to say that this is your role, your responsibility, so take an active part,” said Zimmer.

Zimmer admits the pope not only had a deep impact on the culture in Denver, but also on his own life.

“Even for me in this lost, dazed and confused world I was in at the time, it was still a very moving experience to see the pope land in the helicopter and watch him come in,” said Zimmer.

“It planted a seed [in me] that took a decade to come to fruition.”

Zimmer joined FOCUS in 1999 shortly after it was founded, and he and his wife first served as missionaries. Since then, Zimmer has held a variety of roles in the corporate office in Denver.

At FOCUS, college campuses are seen as a critical time when students need the Gospel to build upon a strong foundation for a sturdy faith life.

“The college campus is really a battleground for souls,” said Zimmer. “I think the Church needs to do as good a job as possible at trying to reach souls on college campuses when they’re in a time of questioning and they’re away from their parents for the first time.

“It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

One of the biggest ways FOCUS spreads the New Evangelization, said Zimmer, is by showing that the Gospel still matters today.

“I think one of the great opportunities we’ve had is to be a witness that the Gospel is still relevant,” said Zimmer, “and it’s relevant to young people.”

25 years down the road, FOCUS has high hopes for its evangelization efforts.

It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

“By then, hopefully millions of people who were involved in FOCUS will be planted in parishes throughout the country,” said Zimmer, “and there will be renewal happening all over — not just through FOCUS, but through all the other great apostolates.”

Seminaries
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • 73 men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Denver
    • 52 men from outside the Archdiocese of Denver studying for the priesthood at St. John Vianney
    • 33 men studying for the priesthood at Redemptoris Mater
    • 125 men in formation studying in Denver at both St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater
FOCUS
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • Nearly 700 missionaries are serving full-time on 153 college campuses
    • Missionaries will serve college campuses across 42 U.S. states and five international locations
    • A campus in England, Germany and Ireland, and two campuses in Austria, will be served by FOCUS missionaries
  • By 2022
    • FOCUS expects to have 75,000 students transitioned into many of the over 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States
  • Since its founding
    • Tens of thousands of students have been involved with FOCUS
    • Out of those involved in FOCUS, 732 have decided to pursue religious vocations

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash